Saturday, 25 August 2012


It’s the summer holidays and I can understand that parents might be desperate to find novel ways to entertain their young children, but a one-and-a-half hour guided tour of a small house in Hampstead seems unlikely to fit the bill. Nevertheless there were two such children, with their parents, in our small group as we shouldered into the tight spaces of 2 Willow Road. The house has a pedigree: the Modernist architect, Hungarian émigré Ernö Goldfinger, designed and built it in 1939 for himself, his wife and their two children.

Ernö was an uncompromising man and his architectural principles were rigorously defined by the use of space, light and materials to maximise his buildings’ utility. He displayed great ingenuity and integrity in the pursuit of his ideals but the resulting aesthetic was and is not to everyone’s liking. This is the history that the two children were expected to assimilate – without being allowed to touch any object whatsoever. I could only imagine that their parents were architects themselves and habitually served up such dry entertainment. Not that architects are necessarily cruel to children: Ernö, we were told, was extremely fond of them and even designed the toys that filled the bedrooms and nursery - which were to be the last rooms on our tour.

Other émigrés from Eastern Europe came here in the 1930s bringing new architectural ideas with them to challenge the old order: sleek designs which rejected established styles such as “Tudorbethan”; methods of construction using concrete to do away with supporting walls; even ways of living were questioned by introducing high-rise flats with integrated services. There were some successes but, on the whole, their ideas died with them and the few buildings that remain intact are cherished by aficionados of their pioneering work. Perhaps, before emigrating to Britain, they should have studied our abysmal form on the acceptance of new-fangled ideas.

The Romans were the first to attempt to introduce architecture to our bemused ancestors. The Ancient British, content with their simple eco-houses made of sticks, mud and sods, had hitherto thought that their erections of crudely cut stones into big circular patterns in fields represented the pinnacle of building sophistication so, when the Romans showed them how to build forts, viaducts, villas and roads, they must have felt somewhat embarrassed by their inadequacy. But when the Romans departed 500 years later the natives reverted to their basic building techniques having learned nothing - although they were quick to recycle the abandoned masonry into dry-stone walling.

The East Europeans gave it their best shot but did not have the Romans’ power of colonisation when it came to imposing their ideas. By 1930 Britain had refined and set its domestic architecture through a process of historical references and was resistant to outside influences. Number 2 Willow Road may be a perfect example of a house designed to suit modern living, yet so many preferred the older ways.

While our guide explained the concrete, central-core construction of the spiral staircase, the health-giving properties of the ventilation system, the thoughtfully recessed windows with white surrounds reflecting light into the interior and numerous other innovations, the children were marvellously quiet, patient and composed. Either they knew what to expect or they were on best behaviour so as not to be excluded from the nursery. If so, they showed a brave face when it proved to be empty of toys, save for the ones shown in an old monochrome photo.

By my reckoning Ernö Goldfinger (if only for his remarkable name) should have achieved greater fame and fortune. But his mistake was to expect others would adopt his principle that logic should hold sway over nostalgia in the design of domestic living spaces. Perhaps, if those children were paying attention, his cause is not quite lost. 

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Most Mornings

Most mornings, of necessity, I see my face in the mirror. The experience is not especially uplifting but it does reassure me that I am still who I was the previous day and, despite cumulative evidence of aging, it’s recognisably me, physically and mentally, picking up the razor and starting to shave, as always, at the top lip. Sometimes I fantasise that the reflection might show some change - for they do say “a change is as good as a rest” – and in fact, for the past few mornings, change has come to pass; but only insofar as I have been looking into someone else’s mirror as we house/dog sit for holidaying relatives. Restful, however, is not how I would describe the experience.

I have been obliged to upgrade my relationship with Aini, their dog, from casual to intimate since I have undertaken to help with her feeding, exercising and toileting. In the process I am learning that dog-sitting entails very little actual ‘sitting’ although the experience is enlightening for I begin to see that the pleasure of pet ownership derives from making some other creature happy.

I have been obliged also to develop a relationship with an intimidating Polish plumber whose six-foot-six body-builder’s frame barely fits into the cab of his cavernous white van. He was summoned on the day of our relatives’ departure to re-grout a shower tray but, five days later, having noisily dismantled the entire bathroom, he waits impatiently for the arrival of the materials required to rebuild it.

One morning, the plumber having taken to smashing the floor tiles with a jack-hammer and the Polish cleaning lady having arrived to disrupt the rest of the house, I decided to get some respite by going out for coffee with my new best mate, Aini. The local parade of shops has many coffee bars but, by now, I had developed a preference for the one owned and run by second generation Italian immigrants, whose customer service is impeccable and whose prices are half those of the others. It is the default location of working men in overalls and is shunned by trendies with spiky hairstyles, complicated spectacle frames and shoulder bags full of Apple devices.

It was a good day for sitting outside, which was just as well because I was unsure of etiquette concerning animals in cafes. I tied the leash to the table leg and sat back contentedly while the roar of the passing traffic soothed my jangled nerves. Even Aini seemed quite chilled – until a passing hound aroused her interest and she started up, tilting the table and spilling my cherished cappuccino.

There followed a visit to a shop which taught me how difficult it is to give and receive with just one hand while the other is occupied in controlling a curious dog. Then, a final indignity, crossing the busy road: we had waited for a safe opportunity before stepping smartly out but halfway across I became aware that the leash was dangling limply from my hand. The blood drained from my face. But as I turned back I saw that she had slipped her collar before crossing and was happily sniffing around the cafe tables, making eyes at the patrons. I have much to learn about dog-handling.

Back at the house the cleaner and the plumber greeted us on the doorstep where they were smoking and chatting in Polish. I had the impression she was complaining about his mess and that he was explaining to her the need for the foundations of the house to be underpinned. We dropped off the shopping and headed quickly out to the park where, not for the first time, I observed the curious phenomenon of the resemblance of owners to their dogs.

The next morning, in the bathroom, I studied my reflection anxiously for signs of unwanted change.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Troublesome Legacies

It was necessary to turn to page six of my newspaper before I could find a subject other than the Olympics, or London 2012 as we are encouraged to call it - as if nothing else is happening in the Capital. The article was about the landing of a robot on the surface of Mars (surely a PB for the USA) and it was followed by an analysis of the state of manufacturing in America which, contrary to popular perception, is not dead. Instead it is transformed into a technically advanced, robotised process whose levels of efficiency, output and technological achievement are rising. The downside is that where once it was the source of millions of jobs, now it employs relatively few. The economy of the USA, as measured by numbers of people employed per sector, has reached the tertiary stage having progressed from agricultural, through industrial and on to service-based activities. The same applies in Britain where the economy underpinning Team GB is based predominantly on service industries (although the concept of ‘service industries’ deserves some scrutiny given the rapacious behaviour of its practitioners in our financial sector).

Sports are not generally of much interest to me but even I can get caught up in the excitement of a fiercely contested race if I happen to lower my guard and accidentally see it on TV. It’s impossible, however, to avoid the bloated publicity generated by the much vaunted medal-rankings-by-nation. The winning of Olympic medals, as all but the most naive must know, is an outcome not only of athletic prowess but also of national government policies aimed at capitalising on the reflected glory of being Olympic number one. In this endeavour the most populous nations have an obvious numerical advantage to start with but other factors such as wealth, available resources and the political will to direct them are decisive. If only the Jamaicans and Ethiopians would play by these rules, the rich, populous and/or command economies could slug it out between themselves without bothersome interference from naturally talented outsiders.

As I write, my own Team GB is doing well in the medal tables: we may not have as many people as, say, China or the USA but we have thrown resources at our chosen ones and appropriated some rather useful, professional floaters. And it is our turn to have the advantage of an enthusiastic, jingoistic home crowd. When it comes to providing for the refreshment of the spectators, however, we have called upon the expertise of the Americans, those masters of service, to send us McDonalds and Coca Cola. So the machinery of the Olympics hums along lubricated by corporate interests, impelled by international rivalries and fussed-over by the world’s press. Meanwhile the cost to the public purse is explained as investment in a ‘legacy’.

There is controversy concerning the involvement of McDonalds and Coca Cola on account of the physical health of their habitual consumers - but at least they know that they are in the business of delivering service with a smile. I ponder this as I sit in a typically British cafe. It had just opened for the day when I arrived to be greeted with indifference, treated as an inconvenience and obliged to sit at a sticky, littered table with wobbly legs. Wobbly table-legs are actually a challenge I cannot resist and I soon had them tightened up, twisting them by hand back into their sockets – one of those useful skills which are a legacy of the secondary economic phase. But my coffee tasted of the bitterness with which it was served up and, since it’s been fifty years since we started the transition to the tertiary phase, perhaps it’s time that we had some proper service - from bankers and baristas alike.

Saturday, 4 August 2012


Leaving the railway station one morning via the big main-entrance doors I deftly sidestepped a dithering, disorientated teenaged girl whose head was bobbing and turning as she peered down at her phone, up and around at her surroundings and back again at the phone. At my sudden movement she started, mumbled an apology then took the opportunity to ask if I knew where the entrance to the station was.
“This is it!” I said with a gesture and a hint of sarcastic incredulity. “Oh thanks” she said without irony and, closing her map app, bent her knees, picked up her bag and tottered off on her high-heeled evening shoes.

I confess that my reaction to her enquiry had been less than graceful: in fact it had been uncharitable. I had felt scornful that she should rely on a newfangled device rather than good, old-fashioned observation. I had made the assumption that she habitually used over-kill technology in preference to human skills. I had subsequently managed to work up a mild outrage at the way teenagers in general appear to live in a bubble where only their current obsessions exist, then followed this by reminding myself of the well-known fact that females can’t read maps.

As I walked on, realising that I had just experienced an inner tsunami of ignorant assumption and ill-informed prejudice, I began to feel remorse for my brusque reaction to her and some anger at the extent to which certain stereotypes have become lodged in my consciousness. What if the girl had not been in full control of her faculties? She might have only partial sight, hearing or understanding. What if she had been experimenting with Google Maps for the first time? What if she had been a foreigner unsure of the language and unconfident about asking the way? What if she had never before seen a railway station? This last may be the least likely but it did lead me to a logical conclusion: that nothing can be taken at face value.

A week later, during a hike in a relatively benign mountainous area, my partner and I, despite meticulously following a set of written directions, found ourselves at a point where we were unsure of the route (i.e. lost). My partner pulled out her map (of which she is a skilled interpreter) in order to orientate ourselves, identify landmarks and read the contour lines – all of which is straightforward provided visibility is adequate. In this instance, however, mist obliged us to resort to a GPS device to fix our position and a compass to determine our forward direction - there being nobody we could ask: which goes to demonstrate that a map is only half the story.

We were on a week-long, summer tour of Shropshire and Herefordshire where we were indulging one of my fanciful dreams of rural, 1950’s England. The dream is populated by people born in the nineteenth century who still inhabit the fecund landscape; the pubs and butchers’ shops in quiet market towns and villages; where it is still possible to drive with pleasure along deserted, picturesque roads, sun-dappled by overhanging trees; to come across wonky signs directing you to cider presses, farm shops or perfect country pubs with idyllic beer gardens. I am pleased to report that all these things (except for the people from the nineteenth century) are still to be found - sometimes diluted by the incursion of modernity, occasionally intact.

Our “plan” was to roam wherever the fancy took us: to wake each morning, point a finger at the map and say “Let’s go there”. But the pleasurable appeal of such a trip is partly in the imagining and the allure of a map, its promise of undiscovered treasures, may never be fully realised. Many frustrating hours can be spent simply covering ground in pursuit of the idyll. So, at last, we felt the need to reassess our purpose, take our bearings and re-set the compass – this time for the exit - where all the uncommitted, disillusioned hippies wind up.